When her father died in 2017 Meriel Schindler felt both angry and numb. Kurt Schindler had been a mountebank, who once admitted that he liked “living on the edge”. He only once held down a job, instead making an income by importing reams of products — from jam to vitamin C supplements — only to fail to pay his suppliers. Even when he was sent to jail — served in Brixton, Wandsworth, Maidstone and finally Ford open prison — he was still dreaming up harebrained schemes, and after he was freed he transplanted his family from London to his native Austria, where Meriel and her sister again grew accustomed to hiding from bailiffs.
Kurt blamed his chaotic ways on being forced to watch his father being attacked by Nazis on Kristallnacht. He always told his daughters to hide that they were Jewish.
While he was alive Meriel rebelled against her father, Saffy-style; she became a lawyer. But to mourn this “maddening man”, who would also make outlandish claims about his family’s history, she has chosen to research his life and those of his ancestors and separate fact from her father’s fictions: “Digging into the past was my own form of bereavement counselling.”
Her father, a most unreliable storyteller, would alone have made an intriguing study, but in tilling the past Meriel has uncovered the most fascinating — and devastating — family history. The Lost Café Schindler is not just a genealogical exploration, though; it sets out the wider experiences of the Jewish population of the Austro-Hungarian empire, weaving in the story of how anti-Semitism took root.
“Digging into the past was my own form of bereavement counselling.”
Meriel’s great-grandfather, Samuel Schindler, set up a successful distilling business in the west Austrian state of Tyrol. The logo on its bottles bore his initials, SS, which in time would come to take on a much darker meaning.
The family had assimilated, but some of their neighbors were already being poisoned against them; an 1889 pamphlet that was distributed locally was entitled Vorsicht vor Juden!! (Beware the Jews!!). After the First World War a false narrative also grew that the Jewish minority had used the conflict to turn a profit, benefiting from the misfortunes of others.
The titular café was opened in 1922 by Meriel’s grandfather Hugo, and stood in a prime site in the town of Innsbruck. It was intended to become “an oasis of luxury and enjoyment”, an antidote to war. Yet when the Nazis came to power the café was swiftly defaced with graffiti declaring, “Gute Reise nach Palastina” (Happy journey to Palestine), business dried up and the family eventually had their business and home taken from them.
Worse was to come. Hugo was attacked by the Gestapo on Kristallnacht in November 1938, an officer crushing Kurt’s toboggan on his head. This is the event that Kurt claims scarred him, but Meriel discovers that her father was not even present. He had been sent to London to join his mother two months earlier: “He lied all his life that he had witnessed the violence.”
Even though Hugo sustained a terrible injury, he was still one of the “luckier” ancestors; he too escaped to England. Two of his close family died in Theresienstadt ghetto, a third in Auschwitz. Hugo’s cousin Egon Dubsky, who had not only converted from Judaism to Christianity, but had supported the Nazis, was shot in the head and died at the feet of the local Gestapo chief. “Neither his Nazi friends, nor his marriage to an Aryan, nor his Catholicism had protected him.”
The café was intended to become “an oasis of luxury and enjoyment”, an antidote to war. Yet when the Nazis came to power it was swiftly defaced.
Perhaps Meriel’s most fascinating relative — one who could also warrant an entire book to himself — is Eduard Bloch. A Jewish doctor, he treated Adolf Hitler’s mother, Klara, before her death in 1907, and later wrote that he “had never seen anyone so destroyed by grief as Hitler was on that day”.
Hitler sent him thank-you cards, remembered Bloch fondly and is reported to have said that “if all Jews were like [Bloch], then there would be no anti-Semitism”. He and his wife were allowed to keep their flat, their telephone and their passports. As Bloch later notes: “Favours were granted to me which I feel sure were accorded no other Jew in all Germany or Austria.”
While the stories could scarcely be more powerful, a tighter edit would have made the book even more compelling. There is too much signposting, too much exposition, too many tangents.
Do we really need to know that Meriel telephones her sister to find out what happened to their father’s stamp collection? We certainly don’t need a brief rehashing of why the First World War broke out or to be told about the litigious history of the Sachertorte. And I still can’t work out why Meriel goes to a pole-dancing class, just because it is on the site where her great-grandparents once lived.
More broadly, Meriel could easily have removed herself from much of the narrative and let her investigative efforts speak for themselves. Instead, she has treated writing a book as though it’s like solving a math problem, where you have to show all your work.
Her family story is so fascinating that you forgive any foibles, though. I think some readers will think that there’s a bigger problem; at the book’s close you still do not understand Meriel’s father and what made him go rogue. Yet that feels like Kurt’s destiny, to remain an enigma — even to his daughter.
Rosamund Urwin is a senior reporter at The Sunday Times